Pay Us to Point Out Problems

Should authors pointing out problems have to pay APCs? Who has a policy on this?

I’ve been noting for a while that the OA movement seems to be in deep trouble — confused, defeated, desperate, and hostile, like sore losers in a game of their own devising (and this was never a game, people).

The frazzled state of OA was underscored last week when Richard Poynder posted this on Twitter/X:

He went on to detail his reasoning in a post Monday, and I’ll discuss at some point why it’s been more than a failure — it’s been an utter disaster.

To illustrate how far OA has taken us from our ideals and goals, an editorial crossed my desk with this opening line:

Open access has not quite lived up to the utopian expectations we once envisaged.

Quite diplomatic, especially considering the tale the editorialist tells (Daniel Montesinos, referenced below, is the EIC of Web Ecology and wrote the editorial):

One remarkable case drawing our attention to this issue was a recent publication in Ecosphere, an open-access journal published by Wiley on behalf of the Ecological Society of America (ESA), reporting an alleged predation event by a spider on a bat (Dunbar et al., 2022). This would have been the first case of a member of the Steatoda genus of spiders preying on bats, globally, and would have also had potential implications for public health. In fact, the article attracted some media attention shortly after publication. However, other scientists were surprised by the claims and, after careful review, some considered the article to be a gross misinterpretation of animal behaviour based on a single observation. Some of these scientists – Serena E. Dool and Gabriele Uhl – invested substantial time in writing a rebuttal to Dunbar et al. (2022), pointing out several more plausible alternative explanations. Their rebuttal article was peer-reviewed in Ecosphere, where it was accepted for publication (Daniel Montesinos has seen copies of the submitted rebuttal and of its acceptance letter). However, the authors of this reply were requested to pay an APC of USD 2100/GBP 1300/EUR 1700 for a rebuttal article that largely disproved the original publication. The authors of the reply, who had altruistically devoted significant time to writing their rebuttal, refused to pay. They felt that they were doing the journal – and science – a service and that it was unreasonable to charge them for it.

Dool and Uhl went through months of delays and ambiguous responses in which Wiley and ESA claimed to be studying the case – Daniel Montesinos has seen copies of more than 20 emails between the rebuttal authors and Ecosphere’s editors, ESA, and Wiley over the course of 7 months. Finally, the authors’ APC waiver request was declined (according to an email by Wiley to the authors seen by Daniel Montesinos), informing them that their rebuttal article would not be published in Ecosphere unless APCs were paid. Consequently, the original, flawed, article remained broadly available to everyone without comment, while a meaningful rebuttal article was left unpublished. Subsequently, the authors of the rebuttal withdrew their submission and approached Web Ecology to publish their reply. Web Ecology does not usually publish replies or comments to publications from other journals. However, given the extraordinary circumstances of this case, we decided that it would be in the interest of science to make an exception. Two external reviewers agreed with the observations made in the rebuttal article, and the rebuttal was published in Web Ecology shortly after (Dool and Uhl, 2022).

Clearly, charging authors for brief, well-founded criticism of published articles creates a highly problematic disincentive to fruitful scientific discussion. This uncontroversial stance should enjoy universal support, but it currently does not.

So, let’s break this down:

  • The editors of Ecosphere, a Wiley journal, accepted the rebuttal article (Ecosphere’s EIC role is currently vacant, and it’s unclear if this vacancy occurred prior to the evaluation and acceptance of this submission)
  • The publisher requested/required an APC on behalf of ESA
  • The authors felt that their article was categorically different, in that it was brief and sought to correct or rebut an earlier article
    • The blunt design of OA journals — focused only on research articles, with no editorial features like Letters to the Editor, Editorials, Reviews, or similar — is thrown into stark relief by this incident
  • A financial decision by both parties — the publisher requiring an APC, the authors refusing to pay it — led to the paper being withdrawn and moved to a Platinum OA journal, Web Ecology

The discussions and decision-making at Wiley about charging an APC strike me as highly inappropriate. I cannot imagine business people essentially overturning an editorial decision due to authors feeling payment for their relatively short critique was inappropriate. The business side actively created a barrier to legitimate scientific discussion, not sensing an opportunity — for instance, a lower APC for brief critiques, and a new, interesting editorial category.

It also would have been easy to generate a waiver and avoid the whole ugly incident. Talk about not reading the room.

But for those in the transactional OA world, money talks — even more loudly than science, it seems. For many, money seems the only voice that matters.

I wonder how often this might be going on — how often authors writing critiques, letters, or rebuttals suspend their efforts when they see the APC on an OA journal’s website.

I looked at a few reputable OA journal sites to see if this situation is covered in any specific way, and couldn’t find an example. Waivers and similar things tend to be limited to people without the financial means to pay, while there is no mention of a waiver or lower APC for shorter articles, discussion pieces related to previously published research, or brief pieces of intellectual dissent.

Since OA journals are designed to be outlets for full research articles, there are little to no editorial sides to accompany the main course, making dissent, critiques, and discussion incompatible with the performative model of research presentation.

Does your OA journal foster discussion? If so, what is your OA journal’s policy for rebuttal articles, brief articles, or critiques?

Do you have one? If not, why not?

Note: In yesterday’s post about a reviewer mill, I misstated the number of journals using msTracker, and also the number associated with IOS Press. There are only 28 journals listed as using msTracker, six of which are no longer using it, and only nine associated with IOS Press. The post has been corrected. I apologize for the errors. [I corrected this at no charge.]